Comedy · Musical

The Big-Screen Success of a Broadway Flop

Glenda Farrell (centre) devises a life insurance scam. Image: Pinterest

The 1935 Broadway comedy, Sweet Mystery of Life, closed after 11 performances.

You’d think this play was ideally suited to Depression-era audiences: Greedy associates of a hypochondriac businessman convince him to purchase a $5 million life insurance policy, naming them as beneficiaries. Then they try to cause the businessman’s demise by encouraging him to indulge in rigorous and unhealthy behaviour.

It has all the ingredients of a smash hit, with an intriguing premise, numerous characters and multiple set changes. So what went wrong?

According to Gerald Bordman, author of American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969, there was too much of Everything.

First, it had three authors: Richard Maibaum, Michael Wallach and George Haight. As Bordman wryly notes, “So many cooks may well have helped spoil the froth.”¹

Second, there was the payroll. There were 48(!) actors in this production, including future Hollywood actors Broderick Crawford and Gene Lockhart.

Thirdly, there were fifty (50!) scene changes. There were “nine different settings moved about on rollers,” writes Bordman.²

Good night! Who could keep track of it all?

But Bordman hints at another agenda with this production, true or not. “The indifference to so many set changes,” he writes, “may have come from the fact that the play was underwritten by a film company who planned to turn it into a movie.”³

Well! Funny he should mention that. A year later, Warner Bros. released a film based on the play, as part of the studio’s Gold Diggers series.

Joan Blondell tells Dick Powell to shave his ridiculous moustache. Image: AllMovie

Gold Diggers of 1937, a musical comedy released in 1936, is a terrific film where everyone is desperate for cash, e.g.:

  • Unemployed chorus girls
  • Insurance salesmen
  • Theatre executives

Let’s start with the theatre executives (Osgood Perkins and Charles D. Brown), who need capital to (A) stage a show and (B) fund their Cushy Lifestyles. Their associate, hypochondriac theatre owner Victor Moore, is tapped out; he’s lost all his money on the stock market and now he’s convinced he’s On Death’s Door.

It’s a good thing Perkins and Brown meet unemployed chorus girl, Glenda Farrell. She conceives a diabolical plan: Get Moore to buy life insurance policy naming the pair as beneficiaries, then “help” Moore into an Early Grave.

Farrell’s best friend is Joan Blondell, a chorus-girl-turned-receptionist at an insurance company. Blondell is in love with Dick Powell, a life insurance salesman ready to give up on the flailing organization. (“A fast nickel is better than a slow buck,” says the boss.)

Imagine Powell’s delight, then, when the theatre boys contact him – via Farrell and Blondell – to purchase a $1 million life insurance policy on Moore.

Now everyone is invested in Moore’s well-being. Powell creates a rigorous health plan for the policyholder, while Perkins and Brown try to Do Him In.

In the meantime, Moore unexpectedly falls in love, and this relationship knocks everything sideways.

Powell tells Victor Moore (left) to stay out of the draft. Image: Classic Movie Favorites

It appears Hollywood was trying not to offend Broadway with this film. Here’s part of the disclaimer: “[A]ll incidents and institutions portrayed in this production are fictitious – – And no identification with actual persons, living or deceased, is intended or should be inferred.”

(The filmmakers protest too much, wethinks.)

Variety had high praise for the film. “Where some Gold Digger annuals from Warner have not been overburdened with heavy story material, the current musical opus gets moving with the advantage of a trim backstage yarn…”4

We agree. Gold Diggers of 1937 is a fast-paced story with funny lines, memorable music and a lively cast. Plus, it has gorgeous gowns by Orry-Kelly and an Oscar-nominated musical number à la Busby Berkeley.

If you’re looking for a comedy that pokes fun at the theatre – and insurance – biz, we highly recommend Gold Diggers of 1937.

Sources

  • ¹Bordman, Gerald. (1999) American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • ²Ibid., p. 122.
  • ³Ibid., p. 122.
  • 4Variety. (Retrieved May 30, 2018.) Gold Diggers of 1937.

Gold Diggers of 1937: starring Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Written by Warren Duff. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1936, B&W, 101 mins.

This post is part of THE BROADWAY BOUND BLOGATHON hosted by Taking Up Room.

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16 thoughts on “The Big-Screen Success of a Broadway Flop

  1. Aha! I started to watch this once then had to leave the house for some reason and figured I’d catch it again sometime, and then forgot what the darn thing was called. In other words, thanks large.

    A dandy cast and an original premise. Since George Haight wrote one of my faves (Goodbye, Again) I subscribe to the too-many-cooks theory that spoiled the play.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you! There are several movies that I’ve started watching, was interrupted, and have not found my way back to them…often because I don’t know the title.

      I agree with the “too many cooks” theory in regards to the unsuccessful Broadway play, especially since George Haight had quite an impressive career, all things considered.

      Like

  2. I was unfamiliar with the backstory to this familiar musical. How very interesting! I was also surprised that one of the writers of the original play was Richard Maibaum. I remember him best as one of the screenwriters of the James Bond movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great character actor Victor Moore was! He could also play the lead role, as he did (with co-star Beulah Bondi) in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937), one of my all-time favorite films. And who could forget him as Fred Astaire’s sidekick in SWING TIME (1936), probably the best of the Astaire-Rogers movies.

    I’ve seen one or two of the GOLD DIGGERS

    Liked by 1 person

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